Terracotta Angel, c.1896
Watts Chapel, England
Photo ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos
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The Centre of the Labyrinth -
Roman labyrinth mosaic, Conimbriga, Portugal
Photos ©: Jeff Saward/Labyrinthos
What lurks at the centre of the labyrinth and how has this symbolism been adapted and employed throughout the labyrinth’s long history?
Hopi “Tápu’at” labyrinth
“Man in the Maze” basket
Petroglyph, Naquane, Italy
Coin, Knossos, Crete
Mosaic, Conimbriga, Portugal
In the American Southwest, the labyrinth is an important symbol in the mythology of a number of tribal groups in Northern Mexico, New Mexico and Arizona. Among the Hopi of northern Arizona, it is depicted in two forms. One, the familiar classical labyrinth, symbolizes the Sun Father, the giver of life. The pathway represent the road of life to be followed and the four points where the lines end represent the cardinal points. It is also seen as a plan of the concentric boundaries of their traditional lands, with secret shrines hidden at key points around their circuits. The other form, known as Tápu'at (Mother and Child), has a subtle reconnection of the lines to produce one labyrinth within another, the Mother Earth symbol depicting the unborn child within the womb of its mother and cradled in her arms after birth.
The Tohono O'odham tribe of southern Arizona (formerly known as the Papago) weave baskets from the dried leaves, stems and roots of desert plants, and the labyrinth appears on these as a design known as I’itoi Ki (the House of Iitoi). A small figure representing I’itoi stands at the entrance of the labyrinth. Its significance is explained in the myth of Iitoi, the ancestral founder of the tribe, shunned and killed many times by his descendants, whose spirit now resides at the top of Baboquivari mountain. From time to time Iitoi's spirit, in the form of a small man, would sneak into the villages and cause trouble. Making good his escape, Iitoi would evade his pursuers with all the turns on the track returning to his hidden home. Thus, on the path to the centre of the labyrinth one can see Iitoi and trace the mysterious and bewildering journey leading back to the sacred peak, at the centre of the tribal lands. The Akimel O’odham of central Arizona (formerly known as the Pima) tell a similar tale, but here it is Siuku (or Se-
In India, the labyrinth design was said to represent a plan of the walls defending the fabled city of Scimangada, in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal, which despite their strength, were breached by treachery. Local stories tell how an aggrieved minister of the King of Scimangada plotted to overthrow the King and revealed the weakest point in the defensive walls of the city to the attacking army of a rival Muslim Emperor, with disastrous consequences for the inhabitants of the city. An inscribed stone, formerly in the palace at Bhaktapur, depicted the city as a classical labyrinth, with forts marked at the terminal ends of the walls, the city at the centre and the point of the fatal breach marked where the four walls cross at the core of the labyrinth.
The appearance of a reference to a labyrinthine design in the early Indian epic, the Mahabharata, is surely responsible for the widespread occurrence of labyrinths throughout the Indian sub-
Whether the Chakra-
In Europe the labyrinth symbol is widespread and varied in its forms. The earliest prehistoric labyrinths are found carved on rockfaces in Galicia in northwestern Spain and at Val Camonica in northern Italy. Those found in Galicia, dating from the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age (c.2000 BCE?), are often associated with carvings of animals and their meaning is difficult to interpret. An example from Naquane in northern Italy, attributed to the early Iron Age (c.750 BCE?), is surrounded by dancing costumed figures and a long-
The famous labyrinth decorated coins from Knossos, Crete, minted by the Greeks that traded from here, date from the last three centuries before Christ, with a few further examples issued by Roman emperors during the 1st century CE. Their designs clearly allude to the legendary Labyrinth at Knossos, in the centre of which the Minotaur was imprisoned. The Labyrinth itself, a Minoan palace/temple complex, was destroyed several times during its long history, but was finally abandoned c.1380 BCE. Interestingly, no examples of the labyrinth symbol have been found from the Minoan or Mycenaean periods on Crete, and the direct association of story and symbol may not have been forged until around 300 BCE. Coins issued at Knossos prior to this time are often decorated with representations of the Minotaur and meandering devices symbolic of the labyrinth, but not the actual symbol itself.
The labyrinth symbol was widely used and adapted by the Romans; its geometric form was a popular subject for depiction in mosaic pavements as over sixty known examples attest. They are found throughout the Roman empire from Britain to Cyprus, from Switzerland to north Africa. The designs used are usually quite different from the classical labyrinth, but in fact, a simple development from it. Most, however, were too small to have been walked, and would have provided contemplative exercise only, although it is recorded that the labyrinth pattern was also used as a test of skill for horsemen, marked on the ground and known as the Lusus Troia.
The legend of Theseus and the Minotaur was evidently well known to the Romans; scratched on a pillar of a house at Pompeii, Italy, a town destroyed by an eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, is a graffito of the labyrinth symbol with an inscription reading LABYRINTHUS HIC HABITAT MINOTAURUS -
Pavement labyrinths, constructed in coloured stone or tiles and usually between 10 and 42 feet in diameter (3-
The design of this labyrinth and many of the contemporary labyrinths in Europe is a reworking of the ancient labyrinth design, in which an equal armed cross is emphasized, This Christian form of the labyrinth symbol, which knowingly pre-
Although contemporary evidence is scant, it is reputed that these labyrinths were walked as a substitute for long pilgrimages after the enthusiasm of the Crusades had abated, it is known that some were the scene of symbolic games and dances; a game of pelota was played at Easter on the pavement labyrinth in Auxerre Cathedral, for example.
The labyrinth design clearly symbolised the tortuous path that the good Christian followed towards redemption at the end of the road, and also the pattern of Christ's own preordained life and inevitable fate, and in this role they would have served a contemplative purpose, an allegory of medieval Christian life. Of course, children used the labyrinths in a less reverent manner, those at Rheims and St.Omer, France, were destroyed because noisy children playing on the labyrinth were disturbing divine office.
Turf labyrinths, or 'turf mazes' as they are popularly known, were once found throughout Northwestern Europe, particularly in the British Isles, but also in Germany and Southern Scandinavia. They are formed by turf ridges and shallow trenches marking a single pathway which sometimes leads to a small mound at their centre. Most were between 30 and 60 feet (9-
Around 50 examples are documented, and others can be inferred by place-
Among the more interesting examples are three that had fully grown trees at their centres, akin to the world tree Yggdrasil. The turf maze in Saffron Walden, England (constructed 1699), has now lost its central Ash tree, but otherwise survives in good condition; an 18th century document records that young men would gather here and challenge each other to run the maze in record time to reach the young women of the town who would stand on the central mound.
Dances and processions are recorded from the Rad (wheel) in Hanover, Germany; a mature Lime tree stands at its centre, making it one of the most impressive surviving turf labyrinths. Slupsk in Poland formerly possessed an enormous example, 150 feet (45 metres) in diameter, the site of a complex costumed festival administered by the local shoemakers' trade guild. Dancers would tread the 'lapwing step' around its coils, an interesting parallel with the Geranos or 'crane dance' performed by Theseus and Ariadne on Delos after their escape from the Labyrinth of Knossos. Another turf labyrinth with Shoemaker connections, formerly situated at Shrewsbury in England, had a rudimentary face cut into the turf of its central mound. Local tradition asserts that walkers would jump and land with one foot in each eye socket upon reaching the centre.
In Scandinavia stones were used to mark out the walls of the labyrinth; over 500 examples have been recorded. Stone labyrinths are also known from Iceland, Russia and the Baltic countries; they also occur in India, Arizona and in the British Isles. Many of the Scandinavian labyrinths are found close to the coastline, and were certainly built by fishing communities, probably during the late medieval period, when labyrinths were also occasionally painted on the walls of churches in the region.
Some are found far inland, high up in the hills and mountains, or , in association with ancient grave fields. Possibly these examples were connected with Pagan practices, where the labyrinth was seen as the abode of the spirits of the ancestors, or provided a protective interface between the temporal and spiritual realms. The stone labyrinth at Lĺssa, Uppland, Sweden, was constructed at the end of an ancient road built c.815 CE, along which it has been conjectured the dead would be pulled on carts to their burial sites in the cairns and mounds which surround the labyrinth at the south end of the road. Other examples on remote islands around the arctic coastline of Russia are surrounded by stone cairns, containing offerings left by hunters that visited these locations during the summer months.
Although we can only guess at the rituals carried out at these ancient labyrinths, the uses of the coastal labyrinths in Scandinavia are better known. Until the early 20th century, fishing folk would walk the labyrinths before putting to sea to ensure good catches and bring favourable winds -
Jeff Saward, Editor, Caerdroia.
Text & illustrations © Jeff Saward, 2009
Throughout the world there exists a symbol -
The mediums employed for its use have been many and varied: a simple symbol described in a mythology, carved on wood or rocks, woven into the design on a blanket or basket, laid out on the ground with water-
The labyrinth has often been employed as a symbol for the omphalos, the sacred centre or city: Roman mosaic labyrinths surrounded by fortified walls, protecting the centre of the labyrinth and the cities of the Roman Empire; symbolising the pathway leading to the top of Baboquivari, a sacred mountain in Arizona; as a plan of the mythical city of Scimangada in the mountains of Nepal.
Throughout Europe, ancient labyrinths are known as Troy Town, City of Troy or Walls of Troy, the legendary city of the ancient Pagan world, or as Jerusalem or Jericho in a later Christian context. In medieval Europe the labyrinth was used as a symbol of Christian faith, the true path to eternal salvation.
In many cultures the labyrinth has been used as a dancing ground and an arena for ceremony. In northern Europe, young women would stand at the centre, as suitors chased through the windings to seek out a potential bride. The twisting, tortuous paths guarding the central goal from direct penetration were also seen as a trap, an enclosure for the Minotaur of Greek mythology, as well as the home of trickster spirits. It may also have served as an interface between the temporal and spirit realms, a place where the souls of the ancestors were thought to reside, barred from escaping and causing trouble in everyday life by the coils of the labyrinth.
As many stories are told as mythologies exist, but whether in spiritual or secular use, the labyrinth often symbolises the path to be followed, however long and complex, to reach the goal, the object of the quest, at the centre...
Many examples exist, but a selection will provide a sense of how the labyrinth, and particularly the significance of its centre, has been perceived in different cultures throughout its long history.
The true labyrinth has no false pathways or dead ends to confuse those who follow its winding course. Puzzle mazes in gardens, as children's toys or in theme parks are all multicursal -
Plan of Scimangada,
Only the studs remain at the centre of the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth
Theseus fighting the Minotaur,
12th century manuscript, Regensburg, Germany
Saffron Walden, England
Visby, Gotland, Sweden
Zaiatski, Arctic Russia
|Introduction - Contents List|
|The Story of the Labyrinth|
|The First Labyrinths|
|The Centre of the Labyrinth|
|Chartres Labyrinth FAQs|
|Laying out a Labyrinth|
|Labyrinths in Ireland|
|Historic Turf Labyrinths - England|
|Historic Church labyrinths - England|
|The Chaldon Labyrinths|
|Labyrinth Typology - Classical|
|Labyrinth Typology - Classical Variants|
|Labyrinth Typology - Roman Labyrinths|
|Labyrinth Typology - Medieval Labyrinths|
|Labyrinth Typology - Medieval Variants|
|Labyrinth Typology - Contemporary|
|Locations - Europe|
|Locations - USA & Canada|
|Locations - Worldwide|
|Caerdroia - Subscription|
|Caerdroia - Submissions|
|Caerdroia - Back Issues|
|Caerdroia Index - C6 to C14|
|Caerdroia Index - C15 to C19|
|Caerdroia Index - C20 to C23|
|Caerdroia Index - C24 to C26|
|Caerdroia Index - C27 to C29|
|Caerdroia Index - C30 to C32|
|Caerdroia Index - C33 to C36|
|Caerdroia Index - C37 to C40|
|Caerdroia Index - C41 to C44|
|Caerdroia Index - C45|
|The Magic Labyrinth|
|The Labyrinth as a Printers Device|
|Labyrinths in Pagan Sweden|
|Three Cowley Troytowns|
|W H Matthews|
|Mizmaze at Leigh|
|Labyrinths in Estonia|
|Nordic Church Labyrinths|
|The Babylonian Labyrinth|
|A Nepalese Labyrinth|
|Stone Labyrinths in Arctic Norway|
|Rocky Valley Labyrinths|
|Petra Labyrinth Inscriptions|
|Knidos Labyrinth Inscription|
|Tomba del Labirinto|
|Origins of Mirror and Panel Mazes|
|Renaissance of Mirror Mazes|
|1591 Labyrinth Jeton|
|Who We Are|
|Historical & Academic|
|Spiritual & Practical|
|Folklore & Mythology|
|Mazes & Puzzles|
|Historical Labyrinths & Mazes|
|Labyrinth Petroglyphs & Artefacts|
|Church & Cathedral Labyrinths|
|Stone Labyrinths - Scandinavia|
|Garden Labyrinths & Hedge Mazes|
|Labyrinths in India, Asia & Africa|
|Labyrinths in the Americas|
|Church & Cathedral Labyrinths|
|Church & Cathedral Labyrinths - Graphics|
|Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth|
|Turf Labyrinths - England|
|Scandinavia Church Labyrinths|
|Temporary Labyrinths - Cork 2005|
|Native American Labyrinths|
|Modern American Labyrinths|
|Modern European Labyrinths|
|Historic Hedge Mazes USA|
|Historic Hedge Mazes|
|Wood & Mirror Mazes|
|Historic Monuments & Landscapes|
|Caerdroia Online Order|
|Links - Societies & Organisations|
|Links - Designers & Builders|